Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 20 2012

#53: Teach for America Eats Its Young

So, I’m in an unusual position as a TFA teacher: this is my third year of teaching(1) but my second year as a corps member.  This means I’m still getting classroom support which I would recommend really for all teachers for the first few years anyway.

In San Antonio, Teach for America’s support model has changed from one in which their mentors — known as MTLD(2) — are no longer content-based.  Instead, MTLD are assigned to a geographic section of the city and serves the teachers in that particular community.  There are pros and cons to this model(3) but the subject of this post is how TFA staffs itself and not necessarily how to chooses to use that staff.  That high school teachers are getting classroom support from someone who taught elementary is not objectionable if that elementary teacher was experienced and accomplished and/or had spent many years mentoring teachers in a variety of areas.

My concern, though, is how TFA recruits its staff responsible for developing good teachers(4) almost exclusively from the ranks of  just-completed TFA corps members.  I take concern with this for the following reasons:

  • After having taught for two years, I know I am in no position to be telling teachers how to teach.
  • Having a staff of almost-exclusively TFA teachers exposes teachers to a very limited pedagogical practice.  Their lack of experience means they can recite the Teaching As Leadership rubric like Scripture, but they likely don’t understand why or how it works or how it can be adjusted for novel circumstances or when it might be good to jettison a practice altogether.  It also means you spend limited time with effective non-TFA teachers, thus reinforcing the idea that TFA must have some monopoly on effective teaching practices.
  • As TFA struggles to keep teachers in schools long-term(5), why does it poach its up-and-coming teachers for positions out of schools(6)?  It doesn’t seem to me that a program interested in turning schools around should deliberately target its most promising young teachers so that the school must start all over again with another novice teacher.
  • As a personal note, I now have more teaching experience than most of my region’s MTLD.  This is bizarre.

As a counter, the alternative certification program I went through provided for me a mentor teacher who had decades of experience as a classroom teacher in a variety of age and content areas, plus years of experience serving in this capacity as a mentor.  Her visits were essential to turning my first year around.  She came to my freshman resource Algebra class which was a mess and accomplishing nothing and scheduled follow-ups and gave me specific things to work on each time that really made a difference for me.  Now, I think anyone could have walked in and seen that my classroom had problems.  But it is my view that the steadying influence of a truly experienced educator is better able to prioritize problems and prescribe solutions appropriate for the situation.  Se didn’t ask me about a Big Goal or data trackers; she could tell by my classroom practices that my kids weren’t learning very much.  So she addressed those problems first.  To this day, I have not mastered those issues, but I have the skills now to get through each class period without being derailed by disruptions.

I wish that TFA would make a greater effort to hire experienced voices outside of its own organization and allow its teachers many years to flourish at their campuses rather than pick them for other fields before they’re ripe.  This isn’t to say that TFA’s staff is not talented, just that its effectiveness will be limited by the homogeneity of teaching experiences they collectively share.


(1) Cue hearty guffaws from knowing minds.

(2) Abbreviation for “Managers of Teaching, Leadership, and Development” which sounds less like a school-oriented position and more like corporate middle management.

(3) Yay for sense of community!  Boo for incongruous content/age grouping!

(4) The bulk of which are MTLD and Corps Member Advisors (CMA), the coaches at TFA’s summer training institute.

(5) I say “struggles” based on the assumption that TFA is actively trying to get teachers to stay long-term.  This is a very generous assumption, I realize.

(6) I.e. TFA staff, law school, starting your own charter school.  You know, the things every two-year “veteran teacher” thinks about.

6 Responses

  1. Dan (TFA NYC '04)

    Could not agree more

  2. Emma

    Fantastic, true, and witty. Thanks for the post!

  3. MTLD is a title that deserves a gold star for its use of private corporate capital language in public education. At this rate, TFA will be on the leading edge of the strategic dynamism, creative destruction, and synergistic synergy that will finally align public education with private profit.

    I think this aspect of TFA – the marginally experienced leading the uncredentialed – is problematic. My ancedotal sense is that it can be a problem for pedagogy and instruction but is horrible for classroom management. Two years in the classroom is barely enough time for teachers to know what they themselves need in the classroom, let alone explore management systems long enough to find one that suits both the students and the teacher. Without that time, I think teachers default to highly controlled carrot-and-stick models. TFA certainly suggests these kinds of behavior systems, and they are concrete and therefore comforting to early-career teachers.

    Personally I find such restrictive systems are bad for learning, but beyond that I think they’re not terribly successful for many teachers. Unless you need and want that kind of rigid order, you’re going to struggle with consistency, and the management plan will fail. This typically leads to unhappy teachers giving increasingly punitive consequences to unhappy students.

    But if the coach of the teacher struggling with management only had a couple of years in the classroom, I think the coach will probably just suggest more consistency rather than getting at whether that consistency is desirable or even possible.

    I also think the cross-age coaching is an issue when teachers experienced with older students coach in primary classrooms. Very young learners have dramatically different needs than older ones. Even the difference between Kindergarten and second grade is enormous, far greater than the difference between tenth and twelfth graders. Primary teachers need coaches who can point out that the five year olds were just being five, not being badly-behaved. Those coaches can guide teachers toward age-appropriate lesson structures rather than focusing on management systems. I don’t know that coaches without primary experience can do that.

  4. I agree-although my MLTD was smart, hardworking and helpful, it was my mentor teacher who worked on site who made the difference between me quitting and turning my classroom around. She was more focused on specific, nitty-gritty details of my situation that helped me get things under control. My MLTD often spoke of a sense of possibility, but didn’t know how to teach kids high school math after her elementary SPED experience.

    • Bella

      I totally agree. My MTLD was great, but my mentor teacher (over 20 years in the classroom) saved my life. She had my back when I needed her to and taught me everything she knew. She shared resources, was my sounding board for ideas/lessons and always had something positive and encouraging to say. We’re not on the same campus anymore, and I miss her terribly, but we still communicate via text and Dropbox!

      I have issues with newly minted alumni with barely two years of experience guiding new CMs in the classroom. While I know several good MTLDs, I don’t think two years is enough experience to take on such an important role. I also don’t agree with the new MTLD model that places them in geographic regions. Hopefully, they’ll see the error of their ways and go back to the previous model (content-based). I’m not holding my breath, though.

  5. YES! “I wish that TFA would make a greater effort to hire experienced voices outside of its own organization”

    TFA suffers from incredible tunnel vision! I had a wonderful MTLD my 2nd year, but she was awesome in her own right independent of anything the organization itself did.

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